The last few months have been something of an artistic nightmare for Gill Robertson and Catherine Wheels, the internationally renowned theatre company who have blazed a trail in making theatre for children and young people over the last two decades. This might have something to do with Eddie & the Slumber Sisters, the company’s ambitious new co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, in which an Andrews Sisters-styled all-gal vocal trio act are charged with getting children’s dreams back on track and the little ones kept safe from harm. Scripted by Anita Vettesse and with music by Danny Krass, Eddie & the Slumber Sisters opened this weekend before a Scotland-wide tour of theatres and village halls, where audiences of eight and over are immersed in Slumber HQ
“We were originally going to fil the halls with beds and tell bedtime stories,” says Robertson. “Then we started thinking about dreams, and came up with this story about a little girl whose granny dies, and whose dreams become nightmares because, even though she’s okay, she doesn’t know what’s going on, because her parents are trying to protect her by not letting her go to the funeral and not telling her what’s happened.
“Then we had this idea about the Slumber Sisters, who aren’t angels, but are ethereal beings who’ve been with us since the beginning of time, and are this 1940s, Andrews Sisters inspired close harmony trio. Their aim is to make sure that children’s nightmares turn into dreams so they have beautiful sleep.”
Inspiration for Eddie & the Slumber Sisters aren’t exactly kid’s stuff.
I was very taken by what Powell and Pressburger did in A Matter of Life and Death,” says Robertson. “In the back of my head as well I was thinking of The Singing Detective.”
Robertson’s first reference is to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic 1946 film, a celestial fantasia, in which a British World War Two pilot argues his way back to life by way of a spirit guide after his plane is shot down. Her second nod is to the late Dennis Potter’s equally classic 1986 TV series, in which a mystery writer hospitalised with extreme psoriasis has visions of all about him lip-synching to 1940s pop songs in a series of surreal and elaborately choreographed routines.
“The Slumber Sisters actually only do one song from that era,” says Robertson. “They do songs by Elvis and the Beach Boys, and their singing and being in time with each other enables them to do their job properly. Because the cast are doing this right next to an audience of eight-year-olds, and because the singing is so beautiful, the kids are a little bit blown away by it all, and the whole story becomes an adventure.”
For all its fun and games, Eddie & the Slumber Sisters takes an inherently serious look at how children deal with the death of a loved one.
“We wanted to take Eddie’s grief seriously,” says Robertson. “We did a lot of research into kids and grief, and how adults handle that. I think we’re getting better at it, but we still don’t do that very well. By not letting them go to the funeral we think we’re protecting them from what is a very painful experience, but how much do we tell them?
“In our story we deliberately decided to have a granny who Eddie loses. Losing a parent would’ve been too much for this story, so we have a mum and dad in a busy household, and each member of the family is dealing with things in different ways.”
Robertson and the rest of Catherine Wheels were in development for Eddie & the Slumber Sisters when the company’s real life nightmare began. That was in January, when Catherine Wheels were inexplicably cut as a regularly funded organisation by Scotland’s arts funding quango, Creative Scotland. The company weren’t alone, as, along with several other theatre companies, artist-led galleries and other organisations, all children’s theatre companies were axed from Creative Scotland’s RFO portfolio. This was despite the fact that those companies, like Catherine Wheels, have helped transform children’s theatre in Scotland on a par with far better resourced organisations abroad. Given that the announcement came in the first few weeks of the Scottish Government backed Year of Young People 2018, it wasn’t a great look.
Within days, however, much publicised outrage, both from the public and within the children and young people’s theatre sector, forced Creative Scotland into a humiliating U-turn, as regular funding for Catherine Wheels and four other organisations was reinstated. The fall-out of the arts funding body’s latest crisis may appear to have dissipated since then, but serious questions remain regarding the credibility of those who oversaw the original decisions, and how they came to be made.
“The whole experience was obviously very traumatic,” says Robertson, “and we immediately went into fighting mode. We were able to galvanise ourselves, because we can be light on our feet. It’s very clear what we’re about, which is theatre for children and young people, so we can focus all our energies on that.”
While Catherine Wheels may be on a sound footing for the time being, the company’s recent experience has wider ramifications for Scotland’s world-class children and young people’s theatre-makers that have opened up a potential for change.
“In children’s theatre we need to go back to what it was like twenty-five years ago when funding for it was ring-fenced,” says Robertson. “We need theatre for children and young people to be protected and seen as a sector in a way it wasn’t at Creative Scotland, who saw it as a genre. I think everyone no looks fondly at the old Scottish Arts Council days, which, for all its faults, was made up of people who knew the companies, knew the scene, and knew what was going on.”
As she talks, Robertson is pounced upon by designer Karen Tennent, wielding a sword made of sticky-backed plastic. Such an assault jolts her, not so much back to the reality of running an artistically successful children’s theatre company such as Catherine Wheels, as the land of make-believe where Eddie & the Slumber Sisters serenade the sweetest of dreams. It also sums up one of Catherine Wheels’ greatest strengths; a sense of play in everything they do. Eddie & the Slumber Sisters is testament to this.
“For me,” says Robertson, “the great thing about Eddie and the Slumber Sisters is that this really heart-felt story is being told in an immersive environment by these top quality singers, but it’s more than that. It raises questions about how children deal with grief in a way that makes for a special experience. If it was just pure entertainment I’m not sure I could do that, because that’s not really me, but what we’ve got here isn’t just a play that you watch. It’s something the audience are right in the middle of. It’s an event.”
Eddie & the Slumber Sisters, Corn Exchange, Haddington, May 2-3; Volunteer Hall, Galashiels, May 5; Dunoon Burgh Hall, May 9; Raasay Community Hall, May 12; Macphail Centre, Ullapool, May 14; Mareel Theatre, Lerwick, May 18; Cumnock Town Hall, May 21, Clarkston Hall, May 23; Castle Douglas Town Hall, May 27; Edinburgh International Children’s Festival @ Southside Community Centre, May 30-June 3.
The Herald, May 1st 2018